What Do The Jesuits REALLY Think About Pope Francis?

Dr. J. Patrick Hornbeck, II

“There has to be a certain amount of understandable pride. And I mean that in the best sense possible.”

An interview with

Dr. J. Patrick Hornbeck, II

theologian and historian

at the Jesuit

Fordham University in New York

The following is a true story.

St. Beuno’s

In April 2005 a group of Jesuits were celebrating mass at St. Beuno’s, an Ignatian spirituality center in Wales, literally while crowds at the Vatican were waiting to see who would be the new pope, up on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. Of course, near the end of the Liturgy of the Word, the celebrant priest at St. Beuno’s would have to pray for the pope. But on this day, the celebrant didn’t know which pope he was going to pray for. So he had an assistant wait outside the chapel, watching the Vatican coverage live on TV. The assistant was planning to alert the priest, during the mass, of the new pope’s name, as soon as he appeared on the balcony. So, indeed, at some point early in the liturgy, the assistant tiptoed into the chapel with a little folded note bearing the name of the new pope. The celebrant stopped and opened the note. Then his face went pale, and he closed it. When he finally got to the intercessory prayers, he grumbled, “…and for our Pope, Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict the, uh, [looking down at the note] 16th, Lord help us.”

Like the new pope, Francis I, many Jesuits are “conservative”, as some Americans understand the term, on social and gender issues like contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of women. But many Jesuits are liberal. Some are very liberal. One was sanctioned by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 1992 for saying mass with a Roman Catholic Womanpriest. Many Jesuits backed liberation theology, which led Pope John Paul II in 1982 to appoint a staunch conservative in charge of the order.

All of this raises the question: what do Jesuits actually think about the new pope? Not what do they say — because publicly, few of them say anything but praise — but what is being whispered, at St. Beuno’s, behind monastery walls, in university corridors — anywhere the Jesuits have confidentiality? Well, why not ask one? Certainly, some Jesuit could give us a general idea. So, I called some media offices to try to get an interview with a Jesuit who would speak candidly about what his colleagues really think about Pope Francis. No takers.

Duane Library,
Fordham University

Why not? Well, a friend of mine had a theory: “if they do they lose their pension, housing, insurance… everything they vowed away at age 16 or so….” That may or may not be true. It could also be the case that no Jesuit is critical of the new pope. [Update, March 21: Please see Tim's comment on this, below, and the reply.]

Since I couldn’t find a Jesuit who’ll spill the beans, I went to someone who knows a lot about the Jesuits without actually being one. Dr. J. Patrick Hornbeck, II is Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies at the Jesuit Fordham University in the Bronx. I met him in his office in the beautiful 1927 Duane Library. [Just for full disclosure, my father is also a professor at Fordham -- but on a different campus in the economics department, and he doesn’t know Hornbeck personally.]

♂ ♀ ♂ ♀ ♂

Erik Campano: What do Jesuits say about the new pope? Not publicly — because just about everybody is measured, publicly — but behind closed doors?

Dr. J. Patrick Hornbeck, II: There has to be a certain amount of understandable pride. And I mean that in the best sense possible. These are men who have seen one of their order ascend to the highest office in the Church. It would completely make sense that there is occasion for rejoicing and excitement. And surprise. He was seen as someone who moderates as well as reformers could get behind.

But he is conservative on a lot of social issues that are dividing the Church — for example, abortion, contraception, women’s ordination –

I think it’s fair to say that all the 115 men who were in that room had what the Church would think of as orthodox positions on abortion, contraception, homosexuality, women’s ordination. So of course, Francis I is going to fall on the conservative end.

So, the fact that a conservative was elected — not a surprise — but the fact that a Jesuit conservative was elected — how has that been met by liberal Jesuits, of which there are very many?

You’d have to ask the liberal Jesuits. [Ed.’s note: D’oh!]

Pope Benedict XVI

When I was researching this interview, I called a number of press offices and asked for a Jesuit to talk to who’d be critical of Francis. Nobody will say anything.

One of the things that people have found so refreshing about Pope Francis I, even though he does hold these positions that progressive Catholics — Jesuits and non-Jesuits — would disagree with, is that he has not made those positions the center of his papacy so far. Think about it: Benedict XVI, then Joseph Ratzinger, preached the sermon at the mass for the cardinals the day before the Conclave in which he would ultimately be elected, and in that sermon he famously decried what he called the “dictatorship of relativism.” And that was his “campaign platform”, although no one would use those words.

There’s not been a word of that from Pope Francis. This morning, for instance, he gave his installation homily at the Vatican before about 200,000 people. And the main theme of it was the protection of the environment. He’s preaching on those areas which aren’t as divisive within his own flock. [Update, March 25: Francis has since spoken of the "tyranny of relativism" . HT to JoFro -- see his or her comment, below.]

What’s the difference between speaking out against them, and being tacit about them? Because liberal Jesuits want reform.

The difference has a lot to do with the relationship between style and substance. Catholicism is a very symbolic religion — art, music — it’s not just about the word. And this is not going to be a monarchical pontificate, or one in which he comes out the first day wearing all of the trappings of his office. That he comes out as a simple priest, wearing white to the world, is a striking difference between what happened with the previous pontificate.

In other words, the content of his belief, and the probability of his doctrinal choices, are not too different from Benedict XVI. But the way he presents it is somehow more amenable or pleasant to –

It’s not just a question of, is he smiling or not smiling? Popes smile. They all do that. I think that in the whole complicated tapestry that is Catholic teaching, there are different things you can emphasize. Even if you were to say that there are problems in the world, one pope, Benedict, seemed to trace that back to what he saw was a mistaken understanding of the human person, in some modern cultures. Francis’ line seems to be that we don’t love each other enough — the poor, the environment.

So he chose the name Francis — talk about symbolic –

– and it’s the most important decision the pope makes early in his pontificate, what signal to send.

The decision to make a Jesuit the pope — how have the Franciscans, their historical quote-unquote enemy order — well, I don’t know if you can say that anymore, it’s more like a nice rivalry –

Pope Clement XIV, who suppressed the Jesuits

Certainly this was a very serious rivalry many years ago. It’s a Franciscan pope, Clement XIV, who actually supressed the Society of Jesus in 1773. The new pope’s choice of Francis as the first Jesuit pope speaks to his desire to bridge these gaps.

But even in the 20th century, the Vatican, at times, muzzled Jesuits.

Even in the 21st century. There are a number of cases. John Sobrino, Jacques Dupuis, and there are probably others.

Do Jesuits think that that’s not going to happen anymore?

I have not heard that. There’s even a question asked yesterday on one of the Catholic websites, is Pope Francis technically a Jesuit? It’s actually a little unclear. The closest analog that anyone has been able to come up with is what happens when a Jesuit is made bishop. Jesuits take a vow not to seek these sorts of dignities. And even in that vow, they say they’ll do their best to get out of them if they’re asked. They’ll only become a bishop if they’re forced to.

Francis was forced to become pope?

One could say it was the prompting of the Holy Spirit, one could say it was the cardinals who encouraged him. Who knows? But the way it’s written in the Jesuit vow is that they will not seek an office unless they are compelled to do so by someone under whose obedience they are. And Francis could easily have understood himself as in obedience to the Conclave that elected him. But anyway, we simply don’t know the relationship between Francis and the Jesuits.

We do know that one of the first phone calls he made as pope was to Father Adolfo Nicolas, who holds the title of Jesuit Superior General, and Father Nicolas yesterday came to the Vatican City to meet with the pope.

As he did with Pope Benedict.

And Jesuit Generals have done so with every pope since 1540, because of the close relationship between the Jesuits and the papacy. But it’s never happened on the fourth or fifth day — normally it would be a month or six weeks in. And the report that the Jesuit order sent out on this meeting was that it was warm and cordial.

We have to see what Francis is going to do with appointments to key Vatican offices. Normally, the new pope restores all the previous occupants to their positions. Francis chose not to do that, and it was after three days, that he said that these people were being asked to stay on provisionally. The key appointment to watch is the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith –

– which is what Cardinal Ratz–

– Ratzinger was. If Pope Francis puts someone in that position who is known for being a “culture warrior”, that might spell a continuing trend toward the investigation of more theologians.

Pope Francis I

How would particularly the Catholic clergy react if that were a Jesuit?

Jesuits have been subject to conspiracy theories since the beginning. Jesuits were even accused of plotting to murder Queen Elizabeth I. I imagine there will be, maybe, fewer Jesuits in these positions under Pope Francis than might otherwise have been, to avoid that sense. On the other hand, this is a man who’s so far shown that he’s not particularly concerned what the folk in the Vatican think. The director of the Vatican’s press office, Federico Lombardi, is a Jesuit. He’s been in that position for five or six years now. He’ll stay on, I imagine. And there are a number of other Jesuits who are contenders for these positions. But in comparison to other orders, because the Jesuits have this historic tradition of shying away from high office, there simply aren’t as many Jesuit cardinals, for instance, or Jesuit archbishops, or even diocesan bishops.

So, in this whole conversation, the basic message I’ve been getting from you is that Jesuits are generally pleased that one of them was elected; they didn’t expect anyone who was going to get any reform done anyway, right?

I’m not sure I would go so far. They didn’t expect a Jesuit.

Have you heard any Jesuit criticize Francis?

No. And I probably won’t.

There’s a tradition in the Jesuits of a respect for superiors, and this whole situation is so new, and Jesuits, in my limited experience, are waiting like the rest of us to see what this new pope will do. Jesuits perhaps worry whether Francis will be able to stay true to himself, in the context of this much greater world stage that he’s stepping upon.

In 2010, this same-sex marriage bill came before the Argentine government. Bergoglio opposed it. At first he said he wanted civil unions, and then his fellow bishops rejected that, and so he went and straight out opposed the bill.

That says something about Bergoglio/Francis not being a “culture warrior”. A group of bishops opposed equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender folk in the US, who would even resist civil unions. So it’s important to put him on a spectrum. Also, the position he was holding at the time was the President of the Argentine Bishop’s Conference. And I don’t know what it’s like to be president of something in which your members are voting for a much stronger line than you actually want. And this is not a president in the sense of someone who rules all over them. He serves more as their spokesperson.

So even back then, the question was still open whether he was a Jesuit. Because he was president of the Bishops’ Conference.

That’s a question with a lot of precedent. There have been many Jesuit bishops and cardinals since 1540.

Just to be clear about this, you mean bishops and cardinals who have a Jesuit background.

Who were members of the Society of Jesus.

But once they become a bishop, it’s controversial as to whether we can say that they’re still Jesuits.

That’s a problem that the Jesuit order and Catholic Church have had to resolve, obviously, in all these previous cases. And there’s a bit in Canon Law that talks about this. And what it effectively says is that the man in question is no longer in obedience to his Jesuit superiors. He’s now in a different relationship, because bishops report directly to the pope. Jesuit bishops and cardinals still use S.J. after their names. I don’t want to say it’s purely honorary, but they don’t have the same relationship to the Jesuit hierarchy that they would have had. So it’s sort of a hybrid position.

[Ed.'s note: I then told Hornbeck the story about St. Beuno’s, Ratzinger’s election, and "Lord help us."]

A lot of those Jesuits were seriously disappointed.

Dr. J. Patrick Hornbeck, II

I think that was a position that was held by many theologians who would think of themselves as progressive, or centrist. To a certain extent, some of those fears were realized — like the investigation of the American nuns — in terms of the Vatican’s decree in 2005 banning the admission of gay men to the priesthood, in terms of Yale University ethicist Margaret Farley, a Catholic sister, who published a book on sexual ethics, was condemned by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. All of those things would seem to bear out those fears. But at the same time, there wasn’t a large-scale purge. Many of the really horrific fears about the election of Ratzinger simply didn’t come to pass. And I think that history will look upon Benedict XVI as a pope who was chiefly a theologian. For instance, his encyclical Caritas in Veritate has a lot of wonderful things in it on economic ethics that, in fact, even some traditionalist Catholics felt they had to explain away, because of the encyclical’s critique of the free market. So it’s a bit more complicated than dissecting things in US political party terms.

The press tends to do that.

Those are the terms we’re used to using.

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